Jack Mabie claimed he was the meanest man in Alaska. Yet the old man said it with a smart-aleck grin on his whiskered face, his watery eyes dancing with mischief. But something else was in those eyes—cruelty. I shivered, turned away. Miffed by my silence, he cleared his throat and repeated it. “Takes a lot of gumption and spit to get folks to hate your guts, ma’am.”
I smiled at him. “Strangely, I get my enemies to hate me simply by being myself.”
The old sourdough irritated me. First impression, indeed, but my first impressions were reliable. Not that I didn’t believe he’d been a notorious frontier bad man from the icebox of the Yukon—there seemed to be a baker’s dozen of such crusty geezers in every tin-roofed log-cabin roadhouse across the desolate Alaskan landscape—but Jack Mabie savored a reputation constructed decades ago in his younger years, lawlessness now recollected in a new world he had trouble understanding. The simple, venal soul of the old-time pioneer had watched as his frontier morphed into the pastel 1950s world of martini cocktail bars up and down Fairbanks’ Second Avenue, pink and turquoise colors blinding a man who’d once only dreamed in gold.
A man in his late seventies—skinny as taut barbed wire, untrimmed whiskers tinted dirty yellow and charcoal, rheumy eyes in bloodshot sockets, scraggly hair dropping over his frayed flannel collar—he wore a drunkard’s perpetual hangdog expression. A small man, slightly taller than my own five feet, but hunched over, a bony left shoulder prominent now, a jawline that sagged and trembled, the result of a stroke he’d suffered during the last dark winter. Discovered half-dead in a wilderness cabin near Chena, delirious, feverish, he’d been carted to Fairbanks and restored to his grumpy self. He’d been forced to live in the Frontier Home, a house of craggy prospectors, wizened trappers, doddering men who drifted from their cot-like beds to the makeshift squalid bars nearby, like Omar’s, a log-cabin shanty with fireweed growing from its sod roof. In the hazy blue light of morning, ambling through the ice fog that lay across the town like dust on old furniture, they’d stumble back for a fitful sleep and dream of timber wolves baying at the Northern Lights.
Jack Mabie wasn’t happy there. City lights—and Fairbanks had more blinding neon and sparkle than he remembered—made him antsy.
Newfound notoriety came to him when Sonia Petrievich, editor at The Gold, her father Hank’s weekly paper, learned through the mukluk telegraph about the meanest man in Alaska. Her breezy profile on Jack, filled with the over-the-top bravado and swollen exaggeration he generously provided, garnered attention. His cavalier account of strings of murders and robberies and shell games was a whole basket of evil gleefully recalled.
Suddenly, after dragging his feet on the frozen pavement and staggering back to the Frontier Home as the midnight sun hurt his eyes, Jack was greeted with hearty cheer and backslapping camaraderie, and offered shots of whiskey and beer. A septuagenarian outlaw, the guy in the black hat from the old Republic Westerns out of Hollywood, was now applauded.
Jack became a ragtag remnant of old Alaska, the gold rush days. The Klondike of ’98. Fairbanks in ’02. He reveled in it. He ratcheted up his stories of meanness—he boasted of murders he’d happily committed, his arthritic fingers counting them off, and got away with. “Don’t got law on the Chilkoot Trail.” As Sonia quoted him, “Ain’t no peace officer around when you hang a man you don’t like.”
I’d first met Sonia Petrievich last summer when I visited Fairbanks doing research for my book, Ice Palace. For a week she was my constant guide, a warm, spirited woman who became my friend. Arm in arm, we wandered through Fairbanks streets, talking. I’d met her father years back in New York, a savvy newsman I’d taken a liking to, so I was not surprised I found his daughter frank and engaging and ready for battle. When I left, I had no plans to return, but a year later, driven, I flew back. Ice Palace was scheduled for publication the next year, in the spring of 1958, but Alaska drew me back—loose ends, haunting stories, unanswered questions.
I’d arrived yesterday, a chilly March day, slept the long night in my room at the Nordale, only to have Sonia meet me in the lobby the next afternoon and insist I meet Jack—“the meanest man in Alaska. Today. You can’t say no. An original.”
“I’ve met a dozen old-timers, Sonia. They tell me the same story.”
Her eyes got wide with amusement. “He claims he’s killed—indifferently murdered—dozens of men up North. Decades back.”
I sighed. “Every pioneer I’ve met makes up stories, trying to top the one just before. Bonanza Creek. The gold rush of ’98 was their idea. They dreamed it. They found the biggest gold nugget in recorded history in the golden sands of Nome. They almost married Klondike Kate.”
Laughing, she held up her hand. “The meanest man in Alaska.” Her fingers drummed the article she’d written in The Gold—as part of a popular series called “White Silence,” the title taken from a Jack London story of the bitter Arctic—and announced, “I’ve interviewed eight old men so far…he’s the cream of the crop.” She’d leaned in, confidential, “Edna, he’s a gold mine.”
“Yes,” I told her, “the one he never found.”
So, one day after touching down in Alaska, I found myself in the Model Café, sitting across from Sonia and Jack, Sonia grinning mischievously and Jack obviously a little tipsy at two in the afternoon. Sonia and I munched on mooseburgers while Jack kept looking toward the bar.
Jack had demanded we meet him at a sawdust dive near the Frontier Home. Sonia described it as a peeled log-cabin tavern with Western-style swinging doors and a giant chromolithograph of a spangled dance-hall girl hanging over the bar. I’d balked at that. Exhausted from my trip across the country—New York to Seattle to Fairbanks—I had little patience with the tinny jukebox ditties of tractor infidelity and hoedown romance. No, I’d said, the Model Café was a pleasant coffee shop I recalled from last summer, perfect for conversation.
Of course, there was little conversation. Jack eyed me closely, his look sassy. “So I’m gonna be in your book, lady?” Before I could answer, he mumbled, “You gonna pay me, yeah?”
I didn’t answer at first, but finally said, flatly, “No.”
That surprised him, but he barely suppressed a belch, looked at Sonia as though she’d betrayed him, shrugged his shoulders, and whined, “But I’m the meanest man in Alaska.”
I counted a second. “You’ve already said that.”
His eyes got wide. “And you ain’t believing me?”
I tilted my head to the side. “Why should I?”
“Lady,” he sucked in his breath, “I’m a dangerous man.” He hesitated. “Was, maybe…before that goddamn stroke.” Then, reconsidering, “Still am.” A deep sigh, almost an afterthought. “Mean.”
I caught Sonia’s eye. She was enjoying this.
From a satchel she’d slipped over the back of her chair, Sonia pulled out a clipping of her profile of Jack and spread it on the table. Jack, squinting, grinned, showing a mouth of missing teeth, blackened teeth, an ugly blister on his lip. He pointed. “See?”
I already knew the piece but glanced down.
The Legend of Jack Mabie, the Meanest Man in Alaska
The opening lines:
Jack Mabie, the newest resident of the Frontier Home, is the last of a rough-and-tumble Alaska from the gold rush days. A cocky man, a fighter, he boasts of his battles with the law and with average citizens—and his easy answer to any dispute—murder. The number is beyond calculation, he maintains. “Folks run from me back then,” he says now. “Ain’t no man tougher in the North, and there be lots of tough fellows.”
On and on, language out of an old Beadle yellow-backed dime novel.
Jack sat back, tried to reach out his arm belligerently in a fighter’s punch, but his shoulder twisted, and he moaned.
He shifted in his chair, uncomfortable, and suddenly seemed nothing more than an old, damaged man felled by a piddling stroke, a man who prided himself on a life of roughing it in the unforgiving Bush, now the victim of age and pain. He didn’t like it. Frankly, I didn’t blame him—at seventy-four I understood the inevitable unfairness of life. You spend a lifetime forging an image of yourself—the one you see when you look in your nighttime mirror, the one only you see, the one you demand—and then, in a flash, fate slaps you into frailty. I understood Jack’s confusion better than he’d ever realize.
“Tell Edna about your life as a prospector,” Sonia prompted.
Jack began a carefully rehearsed story. “The winter of ’03, cold as hell. Alone in a cabin up in Fox. Ma’am, you ain’t known loneliness until you watch the Arctic night. Loneliness—it eats at you like a nasty worm.” He held my eye, though his eyes suddenly shifted away. “Gold so close you can taste it—but you don’t. You ain’t find it in the Klondike in ’98, at Dawson, but this time…you know you gonna. But you don’t. You pan for gold—your fingers blue from the cold. Then you trap for pelts. That’s the gold, they tell you. Frostbite, a can of beans, a few silver dollars jangling in your pockets.” A faraway look came into his eyes. He shrugged his broken shoulder. “Dreams of fortune. Pouf.” A sly grin. “Makes a man bitter.”
“We all have dreams when we’re young.”
He shot me a fierce look, one gnarled finger scratching a scab on his cheek. “You don’t get your dreams, you gotta take what you want.”
“And if you don’t get it?”
He twisted his head toward Sonia. “I always got it.”
I caught my breath. “Even murder?”
He waited a long time. “Frontier ain’t no place for the weak, the sniveling, the…coward.”
“And you weren’t a coward?”
His voice rose, broke. “Nope.”
“You talk a lot about murder, Jack.” I glanced at Sonia and tapped the interview in The Gold.
“Lady, sometimes murder is the only game in town—in those eat-dirt bars. You live by your fists, don’t take no crap from anyone. Some asshole pushing up into your chest, I knows it’s them or me. Dog eat dog, and I ain’t gonna be the dog eaten. I like that when I walked into a bar, folks left.” He grinned widely. “Left. A knife and a swagger sends a message.”
Sonia began, “You told me about a fight over a cache of beaver pelts.”
“Yep. Almost don’t remember that one. Maybe 1910 or so. So far back. A man raids your goods, you got a right to…”
“Kill him?” I shot out.
“Ma’am, you city folks don’t get it.” He wagged a finger at me. “Miner’s justice, they call it. No marshals or sheriffs around villages. You settle your battles with the fellows around you. Two bastards in a bar—and only one leaves. Me!”
“They found you hiding out in a cabin near Chena,” Sonia chided. “Running from the law in Bristol Bay. You’re still a criminal.”
He waved a dismissive hand at her. “Ain’t nothing, that nonsense.”
Sonia turned to me. “Jack worked at a cannery in Bristol Bay last summer. Salmon season, mid-summer. June and July, peak time.” Her eyes twinkled. “You got into a kerfuffle.”
He squinted at her. “I’m an old man. Nobody talks crap to me and gets away with it.”
“What happened?” I ate my last bit of mooseburger and pushed away the plate.
Sonia was grinning as she reached into her satchel, extracted another copy of The Gold. “Local police blotter. Last week.” She pointed. “Down on Cushman, late afternoon. Jack tried to wrestle Jeremy Nunne—his old boss—to the ground.”
Jack set his mouth in a grim line. “You know, I didn’t know the bastard was up in Fairbanks. I knew they canned his ass…”
Sonia talked to me. “The reason he’s here is because of”—she pointed—“Jack.”
The small paragraph in the newspaper mentioned pushing and shoving, an incident that resulted in the police stepping in. No charges pressed.
“Scared of me, that fool. Me, I’m old but strong.” Awkwardly, he flexed a bicep.
Sonia explained. “Jeremy is a young guy, nephew of the owner of Alaska Enterprises, which, as you know, Edna, is a powerful conglomerate of industries. Planted there as the new manager, a plum job for a wandering nephew, a man without a clue how to deal with the cannery workers—the Filipinos, Chinese, old sourdoughs like Jack, even the adventurous college students up from Seattle for the summer. He comes up against a man like Jack who hates authority”—Jack was nodding vigorously—“and the result is…chaos.”
“I closed down the damn place for two days.” Jack’s eyes twinkled. “Stopped production. I slugged the bastard and beat it out of town, while the crazy Filipinos ran for the hills and this Nunne fellow calls the cops. Winter in a cabin in Chena. And then…”
“A stroke,” I finished.
He ignored that. “The bastard.”
“Why were you at the cannery, Jack?” I asked.
“Hard cash. A month in the summer. Ten hours a day. Brutal. A village called Egegik, down from Nushagak in Bristol Bay. A slimer. The rottenest job.”
“A slimer?” I echoed.
“Well, ma’am, the salmon come down the chute and I gut them. You got you a fillet knife and you slit the throat down to the belly. When them suckers are decapitated, you pull out the guts and egg sacs. Messy job, you wear yellow oilskin pants and aprons, and you smell to high heaven.”
“Sounds horrible,” I told him.
“Yeah, but it puts silver dollars in your pocket. Of course, the money ain’t last long—pool halls, movies, saloons, beer halls, and the goddamn N.C. store taking the rest.”
“Tough job.” I nodded at him.
“Yeah, a tough job, but you gotta make a living, lady.” He sat back. “Some worse. The Chinks. The Filipinos drowning theirselves with their stinky perfume. Short season there, then I head north again for the winter. Trapping.”
“But this time, one step ahead of the law.” Sonia tapped him on the elbow, and he flinched.
He pulled in his cheeks. “They put in this green kid, bumbling ass, weak-kneed, college-educated sucker, tries to order me around.” He gloated as his eyes scanned the bar. “I caused such a ruckus, no one knew where to run to.” A triumphant grin. “Spoiled a lot of salmon, I tell you. You got you one month to do the job—can’t afford to lose a day.” A harsh laugh. “Lost two days, ma’am.”
Sonia was nodding. “Jeremy was transferred to Fairbanks, put in charge of Northern Lights Airways, also owned by Alaska Enterprises.”
“I didn’t know the sucker was here.”
Sonia hunched her shoulders. “Hence, the incident in the police blotter.” She tapped the newspaper on the table.
“I want to get back to the murders,” I said.
Jack grinned. “My kind of lady. Blood and gore. Only murderers are heroes in stories. Not dumb cannery workers.”
A skinny young man called over to us, interrupting. Dressed in an airman’s uniform, he was most likely stationed at nearby Ladd Air Force Base. He pointed at Jack as he rocked back in his chair. “You the meanest man in Alaska?” Jack grinned but looked confused. “I read about you,” the airman said. I shot him a withering look, lost on the man who now addressed the other diners in a loud, rumbling voice. “I read about this guy.” Pointing to the waitress, he ordered a boilermaker for Jack. Jack downed the whiskey shot but his fingers trembled on the beer bottle.
Jack was fading now. His eyes fluttering, he made a wheezing sound, his body drifting down into his seat. His gnarled fingers kept opening and closing. Popping his eyes open, he gazed across the room, focused on the bottles of whiskey on the glass shelf above the counter, and quietly echoed his own words to me. “My kind of lady.” But his heart wasn’t in it, and I sensed this talk—feeble though it was—was ending. Sonia, aware, offered to walk him back to the Frontier Home. His hand went to grab the beer bottle but knocked it over. Beer ran over the table and onto the floor. “Christ Almighty, man.”
At that moment a group of men walked out of a back dining room. Dressed in black business suits under Chesterfield overcoats, two of the men wore fashionable horn-rimmed eyeglasses, all four sporting severe Eisenhower military haircuts, their faces assuming the look of a business meeting happily concluded.
Idly, I watched them, this new Alaskan dynamic that could be transplanted into a Manhattan cocktail lounge, a look uniform, bland, a tad smug. So I was not aware of the rustling at my table.
I sat up. “What?”
Sonia whispered, “Preston Strange.” She nodded toward one of the four men.
“And he is?”
“An asshole,” Jack roared.
I frowned at him. “That doesn’t narrow down my list of souls.”
Sonia kept her eyes on Jack, though she threw a side-long glance at the men, all of whom had stopped moving, a rigid frieze planted ten feet away from us. “He runs Alaska Enterprises for his mother, Tessa Strange, the most powerful woman in Alaska. The most powerful business conglomerate in Alaska, including that cannery at Bristol Bay.” To my continued bafflement, she added, “The uncle of Jeremy Nunne.” She drummed the newspaper article. “Nephew Nunne, the victim of the recent assault by this crusty gentleman sitting here with us.”
“The whole family is losers.” Jack’s benediction as his fingers pointed at Preston Strange. He half-rose from his seat, but Sonia touched him on the shoulder. He sat back down.
One of the men nudged Preston, who seemed loath to move. Finally, a gruff rumble escaping his throat, he took a step toward us. Though he glowered at Jack, he spoke to Sonia.
A phony laugh. “Sonia, I’ve often questioned the quality of the people I see you with, but I always assumed it was part of your job to assail lowlife for news for that rag you publish, but…a new low, no?”
Sonia smiled up at him. “Good to see you too, Preston.”
He squinted at me, his pale blue eyes steely. “Ah, Edna Ferber, returned to pillage the spoils of Alaska.” I stiffened my spine. “You know me, sir?”
“We all know you, courtesy of Sonia and her vicious father and the tabloid slant of The Gold. Last summer you neglected to introduce yourself to my mother.”
“I didn’t know a royal audience was proper—or necessary.”
“My mother is the most powerful woman in Alaska.”
“Of course, but my visit last year was short.”
“And under the protective wing of Hank Petrievich. And yet you are here again.”
“You’re very observant.”
A hasty glance at Jack, a whistling hiss escaping his throat, he almost whispered, “You’re writing a polemic on Alaska becoming a state.”
“No, sir, a novel.”
He cut me off. “Not what I hear.” Another sharp look at Jack.
Irritated, Sonia broke in. “Alaska Enterprises”—she flicked her head toward Preston—“believes statehood is a mistake.”
“Be that as it may.” Preston’s voice rose. He looked directly into Sonia’s face. “I find your lunch companions…questionable.”
“Then perhaps you should leave.” Sonia pointed to the door.
Furious, Preston leaned into Jack. “You—you’ll never work for Alaska Enterprises again, Jack Mabie. You disrupted production at Bristol Bay—unforgivable—halted production, our shipments to Bellingham delayed—a rabble-rouser, a…a Communist maybe. And then to assault my nephew on the streets of Fairbanks…”
Jack fumbled with the empty beer bottle, then dropped his fingers into the sticky, spilled beer on the table. He spat out his words. “That namby-pamby ain’t got no business ordering hard-working real men around.”
“You’ll never…” Preston paused, rattled, his face purple, a vein throbbing in his neck.
“What? Slime another goddamn salmon. Christ, you can keep your worthless job.”
Preston stepped closer. “I’ve said my say, old man. You touch him again…”
“Next time I kill him,” Jack thundered.
Preston blanched, raised a fist. “You…you heard me.”
Jack hiccoughed. “Maybe I’ll take you off the planet.” A sickly grin aimed at me. “I bet the applause’ll be heard in the Lower Forty-eight.”
Preston stepped away, nervous, but turned back. “Sonia, again…you really should rethink your lunch mates.”
As he moved away, he boldly flicked a finger against Jack’s shoulder. Incensed, Jack attempted to shuffle to his feet, jarring the table, scraping his chair, and sending our plates onto the floor. His hand reached for the beer bottle, but it fell to the floor and broke. Preston stepped back, stumbled, and turned toward the doorway. The three men had lingered in the entrance, watching, but now disappeared. Preston moved away, glancing back at us, his face a mixture of hot anger and hollow fear.
“You heard me,” he yelled to us.
Jack sputtered, “I kill men worth more’n your spit.”
But Preston had moved out of earshot, the door slamming behind him.
I looked helplessly at Sonia. Her eyes were dark and cloudy. “What in the world?”